In light of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida and of Shaima Alawadi in California, we are painfully aware of the blatant racism flourishing in this country. Last week, we marched with hundreds of others through the streets of Manhattan, expressing our frustration at policy that profiles young, black men. Shaima Alawadi was murdered in her own California home for being Iraqi. These murders are deadly explosions of racial biases that pervade our country and put minorities constantly at risk. This has forced us to examine the work that we do at UHAB and identify the racist elements of affordable housing in New York City – particularly in communities of color in the Bronx and in Central Brooklyn where we generally work.
As tenant organizers we are witness to an unspoken racism that permeates New York City. We often refer to it as the double standard: the housing standard that is considered acceptable in communities of color is not the same as the housing standard in white neighborhoods. In buildings where we work in the Bronx, repairs (if they come at all) are cheap, and quick to break. In Central Brooklyn, landlords typically remove mold violations by painting over the offensive bacteria.
We’re currently working in a building in Hunts Point, where tenants (primarily Black and Hispanic) get sick if they drink the water that comes out of their tap. If a group of White tenants in Park Slope couldn’t drink the water…well, it would just never happen. We can’t imagine it because if it were true, the NY Times would publish four or five Op-Eds about it and the problem would be remedied immediately.
While affordable housing will probably never be luxury high-rises, tenants do expect the same basic quality of living: apartments that are free of lead paint and mold, a monthly exterminator and doors that lock. They expect heat when it is cold outside and no leaks when it is raining. The cost of bad housing is immense, for families and for communities.
Trayvon Martin’s murder reveals the undercurrent of racism that exists in our communities. We are calling into question racism that affects the quality of life for marginalized communities across New York City. Landlords take advantage of tenants – tenants who perhaps have a limited understanding of English – because they feel that communities of color expect and deserve less. But the voices of NYC tenants will continue to demand equality and justice for affordable housing until this paradigm shifts.